A Depression Era Play Takes Us Back to the Future
by Benjamin K. Sloan
I wish that all people of my generation, ages 18-25, could watch Berkeley Rep’s “It Can’t Happen Here.” Maybe we are in denial, angsty young liberals secretly yearning for a decent reason to protest. We want to protect the historic claims that have defined Berkeley. But, protesting and long Facebook manifestos will not save us from four years of idiocracy and bigotry under you know who.
“It Can’t Happen Here” has been adapted by Berkeley Rep’s Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, to modernize Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 satirical novel, where a fascist leader gains the Presidency of the United States. This production chronicles the rise of the larger than life presidential candidate, Berzelius “Buzz” Winthrop, and his Hitler-esque regime.
The comparison to Donald Trump is obvious. Kicking a dead horse, some might say: BUT WHAT IF Donald J. Trump is anointed leader? In “It Can’t Happen Here,” we watch the tragic fall of democracy, full of all the passionate protest that Director Lisa Peterson’s zealous and lively cast can muster. We wonder what this tells us about Hillary Clinton, obsessively yearning for the crown of the United States. We also see the potential triumph of an authoritarian corporate mogul over the other right-wing candidates. Like Trump, Buzz Windrip (David Kelly) seduces and mesmerizes an underemployed and profoundly pessimistic electorate.
The wonderfully boisterous and outgoing David Kelly shows Buzz Windrip using his spellbinding charisma to enchant voters with empty promises and extreme nationalistic rhetoric. Windrip’s populism is exaggerated and stormy, at times maybe ridiculous, but always starkly contrasted with our previous vision of a composed and compassionate leader. In the play, the dictator hides his teeth until he takes over–then all Hell breaks loose!
The masses become infatuated with Windrip. When representatives of the working class line up across the stage—a disgruntled mechanic, a dirty and worn farmer, and a blue collar single mother— they tell us their heartfelt stories. We feel for them. They complain with justified anger and disgust about their abandonment. These men and woman can hardly survive, are barely able to feed their famished families.
It is easy for people like me, who get to go to big and expensive universities, to express our disdain for people such as Donald Trump, or Buzz Windrip. But, for those who are on their hands and knees for long hours everyday, doing difficult labor, they may have a different perspective.
Those who work laborious jobs do not get to debate the latest New Yorker article, but rather have to hustle in an unstable economy to support their families. Lisa Peterson shows both sides of the coin–why some people might vote for an extremist, or, how some will vehemently oppose what he stands for.
As Buzz Windrip continues to gain the favor of voters, patriotic journalist Doremus Jessup (a quietly commanding Tom Nelis) vows to stop this storm. Tall, elegant, gray-bearded Nellis has a sturdy presence that reminds us of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Wise and composed, Jessup is the perfect foil to the selfish and erratic Windrip. Jessup stands up for the democratic philosophy of the American Revolution. We trust Doremus Jessup, because he asserts a basic American optimism.
In the second act, after Buzz Windrip wins the Presidency, he imposes a vicious and growing Martial Law, ruled by the chillingly commander played by Charles Shaw Robinson, a perfect evocation of a self-concerned fascist. The United States turns into a zombie playground for Gestapo-like death squads who squander every principle that defines the U.S. The military burns books and murders innocent citizens. Any notion of civil equality is quashed.
When you walk out of Berkeley Rep’s “It Can’t Happen Here,” you may wonder whether the future of a democratic United States is in good hands. Good thing that this play is just a fantasy. I was worried for a moment too, but Sinclair Lewis’s novel and play declare that American Optimism will prevail.
“It Can’t Happen Here,” adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen, from the novel by Sinclair Lewis, directed by Lisa Peterson, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, through November 6, 2016. Info: berkeleyrep.org